MERILATT MONDAY

Bednar and Malone are facing tipping points in the postseason

Apr 15, 2024, 6:00 AM | Updated: Apr 16, 2024, 1:09 pm

Two years ago, Jared Bednar was standing in front of the Denver City and County Building, celebrating a Stanley Cup. The head coach of the Avalanche had helped the team win their first championship in more than 20 years.

As a result, he had earned the benefit of the doubt. Even a first-round exit against the upstart Seattle Kraken during Colorado’s ill-fated title defense didn’t earn much criticism.

A year later, Michael Malone was standing in the same spot. The Nuggets head coach had guided his team to the franchise’s first-ever championship, allowing him to don a flat-billed hat, throw back a few pops and talk trash about the Lakers.

As a result, he earned the benefit of the doubt. No matter what happens this postseason, as Denver tries to defend their title, it’s hard to imagine he’ll earn much criticism.

But this weekend showed that the free passes given to Bednar and Malone might be premature.

The Avalanche fell to third place in the Central Division by getting blown out 7-0 at home by the Jets. The Nuggets squandered the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference by blowing a 23-point lead against the 60-loss Spurs.

Yes, they both have championships; but that doesn’t mean they’re infallible.

In fact, the upcoming playoff runs of both teams will say a lot about both coaches. They’ll determine whether they were simply along for the ride during championship runs or integral parts of their team’s success.

Bednar became the Avs head coach in 2016. His team missed the playoffs during his first campaign, but this year will mark seven-consecutive postseason berths for Colorado.

That’s an impressive run. But the results have been less than stellar.

Yes, the Avalanche won the Cup in 2022. But they also have two first-round exits, as well as three second-round departures, during Bednar’s reign.

The 16-4 run to the championship was impressive. Outside of that, however, Colorado is a mediocre 27-24 in the postseason under their current head coach.

For most of those disappointing finishes, the Avs have been the prohibitive favorites. They’ve had one of the best players in the world on their roster, as Nathan MacKinnon is a perennial Hart Trophy candidate, and boasted the better roster in almost every matchup.

Another bad showing this year would only add to the underwhelming performances. It would suggest that the Cup run was the aberration, with early exits being the norm.

It would also mean that it’s time to wonder if Bednar is wasting MacKinnon’s prime. A Stanley Cup is great; that can’t be taken away. But the Avalanche certainly haven’t been perennial contenders during the coach’s run.

It’s not like the Avalanche have had a Lightning-like run of success. Tampa Bay has two titles in the last nine years. They’ve also lost in the Stanley Cup Final twice and the conference finals twice. In other words, they were knocking on the door in six out of the last nine seasons.

The Avalanche haven’t been that kind of team during Bednar’s run. Despite having a roster worthy of flirting with a championship every season, Colorado has only gotten close the one time they hoisted the Cup.

It’s not just about titles. It’s about being in the mix. And for the most part, Bednar’s team hasn’t been, which is borderline inexcusable given the fact that three of the top-10 players in the NHL (MacKinnon, Cale Makar and Mikko Rantanen) are on the ice for his team every single night.

The same can be said for Malone.

After missing the postseason during his first three seasons in the Mile High City, this year will mark the sixth-straight playoff appearance for the Nuggets. That’s certainly a nice run of success. Throw in last year’s title and it’s the best stretch in franchise history.

That said, it could’ve been better. In fact, it probably should’ve been.

Malone’s team lost a Game 7 in 2019 on their home court to the Blazers. They got swept by the Suns in the second round the next season and lost in five games in the first round to the Warriors a year later.

That’s not great. It’s especially underwhelming given that Malone has had the best player in the league on his roster during that stretch.

Nikola Jokic is about to win his third Most Valuable Player award. If the Nuggets don’t do well this postseason, they’ll have stumbled in the playoffs every time he’s earned the honor.

Only eight players have won three or more MVPs. All of them have multiple rings, other than Moses Malone.

If a coach didn’t win multiple championships with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, LeBron James, Magic Johnson or Larry Bird, he’d be fired. And no one would question it.

Thus, the pressure is on Malone. He needs to make prove that he’s worthy of coaching Jokic during his prime.

The reality is that he’s never won a series where he didn’t have the advantage. He’s always been the higher seed, with the better roster, when he advanced.

This year, thanks to a complete meltdown on Friday night in San Antonio, the Nuggets don’t have home-court advantage all the way to the NBA Finals. They’re the No. 2 seed in the West.

Malone might have to outcoach someone. He might have to make adjustments. He might not be able to play the same rotation for 20 games like he did during last year’s championship run.

Is he up to the task? History doesn’t suggest that he is, but time will ultimately tell.

The Avalanche and Nuggets will likely boast MVP winners this season. MacKinnon and Jokic should win those awards in their respective leagues.

Thus, they should both be favorites to win the title. At a minimum, they should make deep playoff runs.

If they don’t, it’ll be an indictment of their head coaches. And it’ll be a hint that the teams have perhaps wasted the prime years of their best players’ careers.

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Bednar and Malone are facing tipping points in the postseason